OF THE HOLY FATHER
THE WORLD DAY OF THE SICK
THE FACE OF CHRIST IN THE SICK
1. The Eighth World Day of the Sick
will be held in Rome on 11 February 2000, the year of the Great Jubilee, and
will find the Christian community dedicated to re-examining the reality of
illness and suffering in the perspective of the mystery of the Incarnation of
the Son of God, to draw from this extraordinary event new light to illumine
these basic human experiences.
At the end of the second millennium of the Christian
era, as the Church looks with admiration at humanity’s progress in the
treatment of suffering and improved health care, she is paying attention to
the questions raised by the health-care sector, the better to define her
presence in this context and to respond appropriately to the pressing
challenges of the time.
Throughout history, people have made the most of their
intellectual and emotional resources to overcome the limits inherent in the
human condition, and have made great breakthroughs in health care. It is
enough to think of the possibility of prolonging life and improving its
quality, of alleviating suffering and of increasing a person’s potential
through the use of good, reliable medicines and increasingly sophisticated
technologies. In addition to these achievements are those of a social kind,
such as the widespread awareness of the right to treatment and its expression
in juridical terms in the various “Charters of the rights of the sick”.
Nor should we forget the significant development achieved in the area of
assistance due to the emergence of new medical applications, of a nursing
service which is ever better qualified and of the phenomenon of voluntary
service, which has recently reached a high degree of competence.
2. However, at the end of the second
millennium we cannot say that humanity has done all that is necessary to
alleviate the immense burden of suffering which weighs on individuals,
families and entire societies.
On the contrary, it seems that especially in this last
century the river of human pain, already swollen due to the frailty of human
nature and the wound of original sin, as well as the suffering inflicted by
the mistakes of individuals and of States, has broadened: I am thinking of the
wars that have caused so much bloodshed in this century, perhaps more than in
any other in humanity’s tormented history; I am thinking of the types of
disease that are prevalent in society such as drug dependency, AIDS, illnesses
caused by the deterioration of the big cities and the environment; I am
thinking of the increase in organized crime, both small- and large-scale, and
of the proposals of euthanasia.
I have a mental picture not only of the hospital beds
in which so many of the sick are lying, but also of the sufferings of
refugees, orphaned children and the many victims of social evils and poverty.
At the same time, with the eclipse of faith, especially
in the secularized world there is a further serious cause of suffering, that
of no longer being able to grasp the salvific meaning of pain and the comfort
of eschatological hope.
3. Sharing in the joys and hopes,
sorrows and anxieties of the people of every age, the Church has constantly
accompanied and sustained humanity in its struggle against pain and its
commitment to improve health. At the same time, she has striven to reveal to
mankind the meaning of suffering and the riches of the Redemption brought by
Christ the Saviour. History records great men and women who, prompted by their
desire to imitate Christ through a deep love for their poor and suffering
brethren, started countless initiatives of social assistance, brightening the
last two millenniums with good works. Next
to the Fathers of the Church and the founders and foundresses of religious
institutes, how can we fail to wonder at and admire the countless people who,
in silence and humility, have given their lives in service to their sick
neighbour, in many cases to the point of heroism? (cf.
Vita consecrata, n. 83). Daily experience shows how the
Church, inspired by the Gospel of charity, continues to contribute with many
works, hospitals, health-care structures and volunteer organizations, to
promoting health and to caring for the sick, paying special attention to the
most underprivileged in all parts of the world, notwithstanding the cause of
their suffering, whether voluntary or involuntary.
This presence should be maintained and encouraged for
the benefit of the precious good of human health, looking carefully at all the
inequalities and contradictions in the world of health-care that still exist.
4. Indeed, down the centuries,
beside the light areas, shadows have obscured and still obscure the overall
picture of improvements in health care, many aspects of which are truly fine.
I am thinking in particular of the serious social inequalities in access to
health-care resources, which are still present in vast areas of the world,
especially in the countries of the South.
This unjust inequality is more and more dramatically
undermining the basic rights of the person: entire populations do not even
have the possibility of benefiting from primary, basic medicines, while
elsewhere even expensive medicines are widely wasted and misused. And what can
be said of the many brothers and sisters who lack the minimum to appease their
hunger and are subject to every kind of disease? Not to mention the numerous
wars which stain humanity with blood and are spreading physical and
psychological traumas of every kind, as well as death.
5. With regard to these scenarios,
we must recognize that unfortunately, in many cases, the economic, scientific
and technological breakthroughs have not brought real progress that is focused
on the person and the inviolable dignity of every human being. Even the
achievements in the field of genetics, which are fundamental in health care,
especially for the protection of newborn life, can become an opportunity for
inadmissible choices, callous manipulation and interests that contradict real
development, often with devastating results. On
the one hand remarkable efforts are being made to prolong life and even to
procreate it artificially; but on the other, birth is not permitted to those
who have already been conceived, and the death of those no longer considered
to be of use is hastened. Furthermore:
while health is rightly appreciated with increasing initiatives to promote it,
at times reaching a sort of cult of the body and a hedonistic quest for
physical fitness, at the same time we are reduced to considering life as a
mere consumer good, setting a new scale of marginalization for the disabled,
the elderly and the terminally ill.
All these contradictions and paradoxical situations
stem from a lack of harmony on the one hand, between the logic of well-being
and the search for technological progress, and the logic, on the other, of
ethical values based on the dignity of every human being.
6. On the eve of the new millennium,
it is hoped that “the purification of memory” will also be promoted in the
world of suffering and health, which will lead to “recognizing the wrongs
done by those who have borne or bear the name of Christian” (Incarnationis
mysterium, n. 11; cf. also Tertio millennio adveniente, nn. 33,
37, 51). The ecclesial community is called to accept, in this field too, the
invitation to conversion which is linked to the celebration of the Holy Year.
The process of conversion and renewal will be helped if we continually
raise our eyes to the One who, “in the sacrament of the Eucharist ... took
flesh in Mary’s womb 20 centuries ago, [and] continues to offer himself to
humanity as the source of divine life” (Tertio millennio adveniente,
n. 55). The mystery of the Incarnation
means understanding life as a gift from God, to be looked after responsibly
and used for good: health is thus a positive attribute of life, to be sought
for the good of the person and of one’s neighbour. However health is a
“penultimate” good in the hierarchy of values, which should be fostered
and considered with a view to the total, and thus also spiritual, good of the
7. In this circumstance we turn our
gaze in particular to the suffering and risen Christ. In taking on the human
condition, the Son of God accepted to live it in all its aspects, including
pain and death, fulfilling in his person the words he spoke at the Last
Supper: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for
his friends” (Jn 15:13). In celebrating the Eucharist, Christians
proclaim and share in the sacrifice of Christ, for “by his wounds [we] have
been healed” (cf. 1 Pt 2:24) and uniting themselves with him,
“preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite
treasure of the world’s redemption, and can share this treasure with
others” (Salvifici doloris, n. 27).
The imitation of Jesus, the suffering Servant, has led
great saints and simple believers to turn their illnesses and pain into a
source of purification and salvation for themselves and for others. What great
prospects of personal sanctification and cooperation for the salvation of the
world does the path marked out by Christ and by so many of his disciples open
to our sick brothers and sisters! It is a difficult path, because the human
being does not discover the meaning of suffering and death on his own, but it
is always a possible path with the help of Jesus, interior Master and Guide
(cf. Salvifici doloris, nn. 26-27).
Just as the Resurrection transformed Christ’s wounds into a source of
healing and salvation, so for every sick person the light of the risen Christ
is a confirmation that the way of fidelity to God can triumph in the gift of
self until the Cross and can transform illness itself into a source of joy and
resurrection. Is not this the proclamation that echoes in hearts at every
Eucharistic celebration when the people proclaim:
“Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come
again”? The sick, also sent out as labourers into the Lord’s vineyard (cf.
Christifidelis laici, n. 53), by their example can make an effective
contribution to the evangelization of a culture that tries to remove the
experience of suffering by striving to grasp its deep meaning with its
intrinsic incentives to human and Christian growth.
8. The Jubilee also invites us to
contemplate the face of Jesus, the divine Samaritan of souls and bodies. By
following the example of her divine Founder, the Church, “from century to
century ... has re-enacted the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, revealing
and communicating her healing love and the consolation of Jesus Christ....
This came about through the untiring commitment of the Christian community and
all those who have taken care of the sick and suffering ... as well as the
skilled and generous service of health-care workers” (Christifideles
laici, n. 53). This commitment does not derive from specific social
situations, nor should it be understood as an optional or fortuitous act, but
is an intransgressible response to Christ’s command: “he called to him his
twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them
out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity” (Mt 10:1, cf.
The service rendered to the person who is suffering in
body and soul takes its meaning from the Eucharist, finding in it not only its
source but also its norm. It was not by chance that Jesus closely united the
Eucharist with service (Jn 13:2-16), asking the disciples to perpetuate
in memory of him not only the “breaking of the bread”, but also the
“washing of the feet”.
9. The example of Christ, the good
Samaritan, must inspire the believer’s attitude, prompting him to be
“close” to his brothers and sisters who are suffering, through respect,
understanding, acceptance, tenderness, compassion and gratuitousness. It is a
question of fighting the indifference that makes individuals and groups
withdraw selfishly into themselves. To this end, “the family, the school and
other educational institutions must, if only for humanitarian reasons, work
perseveringly for the reawakening and refining of that sensitivity towards
one’s neighbour and his suffering” (Salvifici doloris, n. 29). For
the believer, this human sensitivity is expressed in the agape, that is, in
supernatural love, which brings one to love one’s neighbour for love of God.
In fact, guided by faith and surrounding with affectionate care those who are
afflicted by human suffering, the Church recognizes in them the image of her
poor and suffering Founder and is concerned to alleviate their suffering,
mindful of his words: “I was sick and you visited me” (Mt 25:36).
The example of Jesus, the good Samaritan, not only
spurs one to help the sick, but also to do all one can to reintegrate him in
society. For Christ, in fact, healing is also this reintegration: just as
sickness excludes the human being from the community, so healing must bring
him to rediscover his place in the family, in the Church and in society.
I extend a warm invitation to those involved
professionally or voluntarily in the world of health to fix their gaze on the
divine Samaritan, so that their service can become a prefiguration of
definitive salvation and a proclamation of new heavens and a new earth “in
which righteousness dwells” (2 Pt 3:13).
10. Jesus did not only treat and
heal the sick, but he was also a tireless promoter of health through his
saving presence, teaching and action. His love for man was expressed in
relationships full of humanity, which led him to understand, to show
compassion and bring comfort, harmoniously combining tenderness and strength.
He was moved by the beauty of nature, he was sensitive to human suffering, he
fought evil and injustice. He faced the negative aspects of this experience
courageously and, fully aware of the implications, communicated the certainty
of a new world. In him, the human condition showed its face redeemed and the
deepest human aspirations found fulfillment.
He wants to communicate this harmonious fullness of
life to people today. His saving action not only aims to meet the needs of
human people, victims of their own limits and errors, but to sustain their
efforts for total self-fulfillment. He opens the prospect of divine life to
man: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn
Called to continue Jesus’ mission, the Church must
seek to promote a full and ordered life for everyone.
11. In the context of the promotion
of good health and quality of life correctly understood, two duties deserve
the Christian’s special attention.
First of all the defence of life. In today’s world,
many men and women are striving for a better quality of life with respect for
life itself and are reflecting on the ethics of life so as to dispel the
confusion of values that sometimes exists in today’s culture. As I recalled
in my Encyclical Evangelium vitae, “significant is the reawakening of
an ethical reflection on issues affecting life. The emergence and ever more
widespread development of bioethics is promoting more reflection and dialogue
- between believers and non-believers, as well as between followers of
different religions - on ethical problems, including fundamental issues
pertaining to human life” (n. 27). However,
beside these there are many, unfortunately, who are engaged in promoting a
worrying culture of death, spreading a mentality imbued with selfishness and
hedonistic materialism, and with the social and legal sanction of the
suppression of life. At the root
of this culture there is often a Promethean attitude which leads people to
think that “they can control life and death by taking the decisions about
them into their own hands. What really happens in this case is that the
individual is overcome and crushed by a death deprived of any prospect of
meaning or hope” (Evangelium vitae, n. 15). When science and medical
practice risk losing sight of their inherent ethical dimension, health-care
professionals “can be strongly tempted at times to become manipulators of
life, or even agents of death” (ibid., n.
12. In this context, believers are
called to develop the insight of faith as they look at the sublime and
mysterious value of life, even when it seems frail and vulnerable. “This
outlook does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are
sick, suffering, outcast or at death’s door. Instead, in all these
situations it feels challenged to find meaning, and precisely in these
circumstances it is open to perceiving in the face of every person a call to
encounter, dialogue and solidarity” (ibid., n. 83).
This task especially involves health professionals:
doctors, pharmacists, nurses, chaplains, men and women religious,
administrators and volunteer workers who, by virtue of their profession, are
called in a special capacity to be guardians of human life. However, it also
calls into question every other human being, starting with the relatives of
the sick person. They know that “the request which arises from the human
heart in the supreme confrontation with suffering and death, especially when
faced with the temptation to give up in utter desperation, is above all a
request for companionship, sympathy and support in the time of trial. It is a
plea for help to keep on hoping when all human hopes fail” (ibid., n.
13. The second duty which Christians
cannot shirk concerns the promotion of a health worthy of the human being. In
our society there is a risk of making health an idol to which every other
value is subservient. The Christian vision of the human being opposes a notion
of health reduced to pure, exuberant vitality and satisfaction with one’s
own physical fitness, far removed from any real consideration of suffering.
This view, ignoring the person’s spiritual and social dimensions, ends by
jeopardizing his true good. Precisely because health is not limited to
biological perfection, life lived in suffering also offers room for growth and
self-fulfillment, and opens the way to discovering new values.
This vision of health, based on an anthropology that
respects the whole person, far from being identified with the mere absence of
illness, strives to achieve a fuller harmony and healthy balance on the
physical, psychological, spiritual and social level. In this perspective, the
person himself is called to mobilize all his available energies to fulfill his
own vocation and for the good of others.
14. This model of health requires
that the Church and society create an ecology worthy of man. The environment,
in fact, is connected with the health of the individual and of the population:
it constitutes the human being’s “home” and the complex of resources
entrusted to his care and stewardship, “the garden to be tended and the
field to be cultivated”. But the external ecology of the person must be
combined with an interior, moral ecology, the only one which is fitting for a
proper concept of health.
Considered in its entirety, human health thus becomes
an attribute of life, a resource for the service of one’s neighbour and
openness to salvation.
15. In the Jubilee year of the
Lord’s favour - “a year of the remission of sins and of the punishment due
to them, a year of reconciliation between disputing parties, a year of
manifold conversions and of sacramental and extra-sacramental penance” (Tertio
millennio adveniente, n. 14) - I invite pastors, priests, men and women
religious, the faithful and people of goodwill courageously to face the
challenges that threaten the world of suffering and health.
May the International Eucharistic Congress, which will
be celebrated in Rome in 2000, become the ideal centre, radiating prayers and
initiatives that can make the divine Samaritan’s presence alive and active
in the world of health care.
I fervently hope that through the contribution of our
brothers and sisters in all the Christian Churches, the celebration of the
Jubilee of the Year 2000 will mark the development of ecumenical collaboration
in loving service to the sick, so as to witness clearly to everyone to the
search for unity on the concrete path of charity.
I address a specific appeal to the international
political, social and health-care organizations in every part of the world to
be convincing promoters of concrete projects to fight all that is harmful to
the dignity and health of the person.
May we be accompanied in the process of active
participation in the lives of our sick brothers and sisters by the Virgin
Mother who at the foot of the Cross (cf. Jn 19:25) shared the
sufferings of her Son and, with her expert experience of suffering, offers her
constant and loving protection to those who are suffering in mind and body the
limits and wounds of the human condition.
I entrust the sick and all those who are close to them
to her, Health of the sick and Queen of peace, so that with her motherly
intercession she will help them to build the civilization of love.
With these hopes, I impart a special Apostolic Blessing
From Castel Gandolfo, 6 August 1999, the Transfiguration of the Lord.